The Press Council has considered complaints about a photograph in The Daily Telegraph on 27 May 2014. The headline was “Deep blue murder: Ex cops at centre of death probe as body surfaces”. The photograph occupied much of the front page and showed a body-sized shape wrapped in a tarpaulin floating in the ocean. A foot clothed in a shoe could be seen protruding from the end of the tarpaulin.
The police suspected at the time, and subsequently confirmed, the body in the tarpaulin was that of a student whom the police believed had been murdered a week earlier in relation to a drug deal. The front page also had insets of an earlier photograph of the student when alive, and of two people suspected of involvement in the alleged murder.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the front page breached its Standards of Practice about publishing photographs which could reasonably cause offence.
The publication replied that the decision to publish the images was taken extremely seriously and on justifiable public interest grounds. After referring to its campaigns over many years against particularly drug and gun crimes, it said that, despite the risk of offending some readers, publishing the photograph was appropriate to show the awful consequences that could occur from getting involved in drug-related crime, especially as this case appeared to involve a young and perhaps naïve person.
The publication acknowledged that a graphic warning was placed on the online version some hours after the print version was published, but said that even if it was possible to apply a graphic warning to the print version there was no need to do so.
The Council’s relevant Standard of Practice requires that any reasonably likely offence to sensibilities should be weighed against the importance of publishing the photograph in the public interest. Of course, the fact that a photograph may be of interest to the public does not mean that it is in the public interest.
The Council considers that, especially by showing the foot, the photograph was likely to cause great offence to a significant number of people, including those who merely saw it on a newsstand. A substantial number of people who saw it are likely to have known the student.
On the other hand, the Council believes that powerful exposure in this way of the risks of becoming involved in drug deals can be of substantial importance in the public interest. This effect would have been less powerful if the foot had not been shown to establish that the bag contained a body.
The Council’s principal concern was that the photograph was shown on the front page and was very large. Placing it on a very prominent inner page, with a clear warning on the front page, could have substantially reduced the risk of offence while not greatly reducing its effectiveness in raising awareness of the drug trade’s dangers. In some instances, therefore, placement of photographs on the front page may breach the Council’s Standards even though they would have been acceptable inside the newspaper.
On balance, however, the Council considers in this case that publishing the photograph did not breach its Standards, even though it was very prominent on the front page. This is mainly because there was a very strong justification in the public interest and also because the foot was not shown in graphic detail.
Accordingly, the Council has concluded that its Standards of Practice were not breached.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies General Principle 7: “Publications have a wide discretion in publishing material, but they should balance the public interest with the sensibilities of their readers, particularly when the material, such as photographs, could reasonably be expected to cause offence.”